Written by James Craig — Inspector John Carlyle is a wearily decent copper, working in the heart of London. He lives with his long-suffering wife and teenage daughter in a block of council flats not far away. Permanently tired, struggling to make ends meet but fiercely honest, he is one of the more credible of the many police detectives inhabiting our crime fiction bookshelf. For a crash-course in all things Carlyle you can read our reviews of the 2011 London Calling, and the 2012 sequels Buckingham Palace Blues and Never Apologise, Never Explain.
This latest case starts with the professional killing of a man who is happily watching his daughter play in London’s most safety conscious children’s park. No adults are allowed into Coram’s Field, unless they are accompanied by a child. Nonetheless Alex Schaeffer is very, very dead, with several bullets in his chest.
Things go from bad to worse for the harassed detective. In the ensuing chaos, Schaeffer’s nine-year-old daughter goes missing. Then Carlyle has to pick up the very cold investigation into the disappearance of a young Japanese woman. The officer who was dealing with it is on maternity leave, and now some VIPs from the Japanese Embassy want to know what’s happening. Just about managing to bluff his way through that, Carlyle then becomes involved in the nasty case of a severed head. More precisely, the head has been separated from its body by the expert use of a Fiskar’s Splitting Axe, and is proudly impaled on a railing. The subsequent search of waste bins and garbage bags around the scene duly turns up more body parts – enough for this to turn into a mass murder enquiry.
Just when his poisoned chalice truly runneth over, Carlyle discovers a furious elderly man manacled to the railings outside the police station. It turns out that he has been forcibly repatriated from his Italian lakeside villa – and he was the main suspect in the tragic death of a young girl some years earlier. The girl’s father – now an old man himself – is suspected of financing the kidnap. In the few precious hours he is able to spend at home, Carlyle learns of the death of his mother, and has to rescue his father from an embarrassing situation involving a drunk Japanese man and some angry Russian prostitutes.
One of Craig’s skills is to create an undercurrent of black humour, which swirls away beneath some pretty grisly events. Carlyle does not deliver killing one-liners, but his mordant view of the world around him insulates him – to a degree – from the human nastiness he must deal with every day. His hapless Sergeant, the improbably named Umar Sligo, is a comic creation worthy of more development, and I loved it that his family want him to settle down in a Manchester suburb and breed a family, while he is determined to marry a former stripper.
Although his touch is light, Craig writes like an angel. This, for example, as Carlyle contemplates his mother’s Roman Catholic funeral. “Father Maciuszec doubtless did his best… a 20-something Polish virgin talking solemnly about people he knew not and things he could not possibly comprehend.”
Carlyle is a founder member of a small but growing group of fictional coppers who are not semi-alcoholic misanthropes, don’t sit brooding to a soundtrack of gloomy jazz, and don’t spend their waking hours at complete loggerheads with their superiors. John Carlyle – praise be – actually seems to be a thoroughly admirable man doing a difficult job to the best of his ability.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars